Time Tells All: Understanding Tense

Past. Present. Future. Many folks think there are just those three tenses. There are actually different subsets of each tense, such as continuous (also called progressive), perfect, and perfect continuous. Each tense and its subsets are all written a different way, and all have different meanings. Now, tense differs from grammatical mood, such as conditional, subjunctive or imperative. That’s something we’ll touch on another time.

Tense is essentially when the verb is happening. It relates to time. Did it already happen in the past? Is it happening now in the present? Will it happen in the future? I wrote. I write. I will write. The four subsets of tense are:

  • Simple
  • Continuous (or Progressive)
  • Perfect
  • Perfect Continuous (or Perfect Progressive)

I’ve created a chart to show examples for all the tenses and their subsets. Feel free to save it, download it, share it, etc.

There’s also the topic of infinitives with tense. As a refresher, the infinitive form of a verb is the most basic form—its “to” form: to write, to read, to walk. When a verb is followed by an infinitive and you’re changing tense, only the main verb should change. This happens with words like “want” or “need,” and they are frequently followed by an infinitive to show the desire for a particular action. For example, the verb want would look like this in the various tense:

Past Simple: I wanted to write.
Present Simple: I want to write.
Future Simple: I will want to write.
Past Continuous: I was wanting to write.
Present Continuous: I am wanting to write.
Future Continuous: I will be wanting to write.
Past Perfect: I had wanted to write.
Present Perfect: I have wanted to write.
Future Perfect: I will have wanted to write.
Past Perfect Continuous: I had been wanting to write.
Present Perfect Continuous: I have been wanting to write.
Future Perfect Continuous: I will have wanted to write.

When it comes to writing a novel, consistency is important. You don’t want the current action to jump back and forth between present and past, but things that happened previously (as described by the narrator, whether that’s first person or third person) can be written in past tense. Most fiction novels are written in past tense, although I have seen some in present tense. Some great novels, actually. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich (based on the Tony award-winning stage musical by Steven Levenson), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins are all great examples of stories written in present. Here is a passage from the opening chapter of The Hunger Games to show you a novel in this particular tense:

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.”

Notice that not every sentence is in simple present. The narrator, Katniss, tells some things in perfect continuous present: “She must have had bad dreams. . .” She also describes her mother’s former beauty in simple past: “My mother was very beautiful once, too.” Much of the text, however, is in present tense. So, no, not every sentence has to be in simple present if you’re writing in that tense. Just bear in mind when the action is happening in your sentence.

I hope you found this post informative and useful in explaining tense. Questions? Comments? Leave a comment for me! They are much appreciated.